Canada and Nationhood™

As a nation, Canada has lots of ideas about nationhood.

The present federal government champions the notion of a “nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”

The past government passed a motion recognizing “that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada” — a nation within a nation.

How is it that the geographical territory we call ‘Canada’ can be the homeland of so many nations?

The answer, I think, is that the federal government of Canada has very few qualms with ‘licensing’ the use of ‘nation’ to particular groups that it needs to appease. But as with most negotiations, the most critical details live in the small print: at every turn, the ‘definition’ of nationhood is determined by, well, the Nation. In Canada, the word ‘nation’ has evolved more or less to become synonymous with groups who have a particular bargaining status with the federal government, but it is still nonetheless the federal government who bestows, grants, or acknowledges the officially sanctioned ‘nationhood’ of its subgroups of subjects.

Last week I heard Al Day, a local indigenous leader, give a talk. He brought up the observation that First Nation communities have little to nothing to do with defining their concept of nationhood. “First Nations” — and what it means to be such a ‘nation’ — is a definition imposed on indigenous communities by the government of Canada. Nationalism and Nationhood, he argued, are mental concepts inherent in the mindset of the colonizer, not the colonized.

On the global, geopolitical stage, nations are defined in practical terms by the juxtaposition of their power vis-a-vis one another. In a word, sovereignty. But within a nation, this idea of so-called ‘sub-nationalism’ must be defined by whatever rules and parameters the central authority deems most expedient. It is a brand of nationhood with caveats. Many, many caveats. Caveats that have been written by — and presumably serve — someone else. (If the terms and conditions of your nationhood are determined by another party, in what sense, exactly, do you consider yourself a nation?)

The lesson here is that it is important to subject politically mobilized language to scrutiny. When a central government defines and negotiates with a certain group as a nation, who retains the power and authority to define their nationhood? And, most importantly, whose nationalism is entrenched in the process? In Canada, we need to have a debate about whether it is the national identity of the ‘nationalizer’ or the ‘nationalizee’ that is served by the rhetoric of ‘nations-within-nations’ and ‘nation-to-nation’ relationships.

Share · Tweet

‘Canada 150’ and the Idea of a Nation

In his Canada Day speech on Saturday (July 1, 2017), Justin Trudeau proclaimed,

Ours is a land of original peoples and of newcomers. And our greatest pride is that you can come here from anywhere in the world, build a good life, and be part of our community. We don’t care where you’re from, what religion you practice, or whom you love, you are all welcome in Canada! (Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, 2017 Canada Day speech, 9:42-mark)

There is an interesting, unanswered questioning lingering behind these maudlin words: who, exactly, is this ‘we’ who so passionately does not care about my birthplace, religion, and love life? And if they — whoever this ‘we’ might be — do not care whatsoever about any details or characteristics of my life, what do they care about? And who is doing the welcoming here, exactly?

Canadian national identity is famously vexing. Defining what it means to be ‘a Canadian’ does not distill into a single, essentialist descriptor: as a whole, we are settlers, colonizers, migrants, immigrants, forcibly displaced, refugees, or the descendants of some combination thereof. For many First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities, the word ‘Canada’ represents a litany of broken promises, disastrous social policies, and [what most Canadians would describe in any other country as] exploitation and oppression. Ergo, defining a shared, collective sense of what it means to say, ‘I am Canadian’ is impossible because it feels like all descriptions inevitably omit or contradict each other. To fill all the placeholders for Canadian identity means coming up with a statement that says nothing by trying to say everything.

Trudeau himself has referenced the dilemma by referring to Canada as a ‘post-national‘ state where ‘there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.’ Whether we have entered the age of post-nationalism or not, Trudeau still apparently thinks that there is a ‘we,’ and I’m curious to understand who this ‘we’ describes.

Surrounded by Royal Canadian Mounties, cannon salutes, and CF-18 flypasts, I thought back to the writings of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) who coined one of the most famous and provocative definitions for ‘a state’:

a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. (Weber 1919)

Whether you agree or disagree with Weber’s definition, it is worth noting how virtually every celebration of nationhood (anywhere in the world) is manifested by a commemoration of military prowess. Whether you live in Canada or North Korea — whether you parade your mounties or your missile silos — it seems impossible for us to say, ‘We are a state’ without simultaneously amplifying and showcasing our militaristic sovereignty. Apparently, you can’t celebrate a nation without celebrating its military — the ‘Canada 150’ extravaganza in Ottawa being no exception. (It might also be worth speculating how fireworks serve the penultimate function of conspicuous consumption — ‘Look! We have the power to randomly blow up lots of shit!’ — as a benign fanfare of nationalistic-cum-militaristic identity.)

If we follow Weber’s definition, it would be naïve to think of Canadian identity as just a pleasant ‘shared idea’ to which we all happily subscribe. Our national anthem is not a quaint version of kumbaya but a highly overt declaration of our commitment to patriotic sacrifice. However, I’m guessing most celebrants of Canada’s so-called sesquicentennial were not amassing to consciously cheer on their military. Perhaps this is another dilemma of being Canadian: perhaps ‘we’ refers to the identity of a nation who does not want to worry about who has the ‘monopoly’ on the legitimate use of violence? (As Machiavellian as it sounds, I think it is fair to say that Canada certainly speaks as a nation who has not had to worry about being invaded for a very long time.) Perhaps our eagerness to describe ourselves as international ‘peacekeepers’ stems from a deeply rooted cognitive dissonance.

If Trudeau’s ‘we’ refers to the institution of our sovereign nation state, then ‘we’ ultimately means the federal government. (After all, who possesses the power the set the date of a national birthday in the first place? Who else would arbitrarily delineate their point of origin to the signing of a confederation?) If this is the case, we could rewrite the speech: “The federal government of Canada does not care where you’re from, what religion you practice, or whom you love.”

On the one hand, this sounds refreshingly non-paternalistic. (Is this not the ideal we should expect from a free, healthy, liberal democracy? In a world full of oppressive regimes and dictators, does this not deserve to be celebrated?) On the other hand, it gets to the crux of the ‘Canada 150’ controversy: is all the hype about July 1, 2017, not ultimately just a big federally-sponsored party to celebrate the institution of the government itself? And if, since the date of its highly self-popularizing inauguration, this organization had gone on to violate your land treaties, forcibly remove your children from your home, and exploit your resources, would you not be forgiven for protesting the festivities? In fact, you might even be forgiven for questioning why so many other residents in the land uncritically don red and white and line the streets of the parade.

Many of us find ourselves with a difficult question: how do you celebrate ideas — like equality, human rights, and freedom — under the auspice of an institution that has — like all federal governments the world over — repeatedly failed to manifest them in practice?

What better way to celebrate a value than to act on it?

After all, if the ideas of equality, human rights, and freedom are what truly define us as the ‘we’ of Canada, then our collective identity itself is no stronger than the most discriminatory or exploitative policy of the governments we elect.

External links for further reading:

UNsettling Canada 150

Not everyone will be celebrating Canada 150 this weekend. Here’s why.

Facile ‘Canada 150’ celebration deserves to be disrupted

150 years of cultural genocide: Today, like all days, is an insult

Can you celebrate Canada 150 and still respect Indigenous rights?

‘You’re celebrating colonization’: 4 Indigenous people share why they won’t be singing O Canada on July 1


Share · Tweet

On Talking to Canadians

I was recently interviewed by Jeremy Marks for the Talking to Canadians podcast, which is produced by Jeremy and along with Ryan O’Connor. It is a long and wide-ranging conversation that touches on many ideas, including the reign of the algorithm, learning from history, power and inclusion, the value of ignorance, and the topic of water protectors and reconciliation in Canada.

Share · Tweet

The Perils of Having a Social Cause

Let’s begin with a story. A true story…

The History of the Smoki

In the early 1920s, the city of Prescott, Arizona faced economic difficulty. Even the yearly rodeo, one of the city’s primary economic drivers, was on the brink of collapse. In response, some prominent Prescott businessmen and politicians came up with an idea to rejuvenate interest in the rodeo: they would recreate the ceremonial dances of Native Americans. They painted their skin to darken their complexion, tried to faithfully recreate native attire, and then performed the Hopi Snake Dance at the Prescott Frontier Days rodeo in 1921.

Rodeo-goers and the Prescott community loved the rendition, and the dancers decided to call themselves the Smoki (pronounced smoke-eye) People. For the next seventy years, the Smoki — this fictitious tribe of white, Caucasian, Prescott community leaders — performed the sacred dances of natives for cheering rodeo fans.

Shortly after their inaugural dance, the Smoki also gave themselves the mandate of preserving native culture. They sought to authentically recreate every component of their performance, even hand-making every element of dress and decoration.

Today we would call it the height and epitome of cultural appropriation.

Of course, many people were duly unimpressed with the Smoki club — particularly, the indigenous people still living in and around Prescott, the Hopi (pronounced, hope-ee). For the Hopi, watching a bunch of white people parade sacred dances for a commercial audience was an affront to their identity, not an appreciated mode of cultural preservation.

Donald Nelson, a Hopi who grew up in Prescott, said, “I put it in the perspective of if Hopi were to perform Christian rituals, dress in priests’ clothes and build a fake church, how would this society react?”

For the next seventy years the faux Smoki tribe would continue to grow, at its peak enlisting over four hundred community members. Its ranks comprised of the creme de la creme of Prescott’s social elite, who mixed and mingled at exclusive and secretive events. Members were identifiable by small tattoos on their left hands.

The ceremonial dances ended in 1990 after a large and peaceful protest was staged by Native Americans in Prescott. If you visit Prescott today, you can visit the remnants of the Smoki tribe: The Smoki Museum and Research Library which is, as the brochure claims, “the lasting legacy of the Smoki People,” and run entirely by volunteers dedicated to the cause of preserving the Native history of the area.

The relationship between the Hopi and the Smoki was (and is still, to some extent) a clash of ethnic and cultural priorities. Assuming their motives were genuine, many Smoki were indeed concerned for the legacy of Hopi people. But many Hopi were deeply offended by the notion that their cultural identity ‘needed saving’ by the white townspeople of Prescott. Can we blame them for their indignation? Were the Smoki pretentious or just culturally industrious? Does their altruistic concern for native culture count if it in fact offended the Hopi?

I Have a Cause

I visited the Smoki museum a few months ago. Admittedly, the visit made me uneasy. There is something about the Smoki history that is eerily analogous to present-day “cause awareness” and debates about cultural appropriation.

With the story of the Smoki fresh in our minds, consider the following: I have good friends who walk to work to raise awareness for children in Uganda (GuluWalk); ride their bicycles to raise money for displaced refugees (Ride for Refuge); set up cardboard boxes on street corners to raise awareness of homelessness (World Homeless Day); walk in high heels to raise awareness about sexual violence (Walk a Mile in Her Shoes); climb stairs to raise money for the socially disadvantaged (CN Tower Climb); repel off large buildings to raise money for children with disabilities (Easter Seals Drop Zone); run to raise money for breast cancer research (Run for the Cure); wear purple to raise awareness of violence against women (Shine the Light); and grow facial hair to raise awareness for men”s health issues (Movember). The list could go on…

Broadly, these initiatives fall under the definition of Cause-Related Marketing (or CRM), which meld social issues with public activities, usually under the umbrella of at least one major corporate sponsor.

Cause-related marketing has become the standard de facto for social campaigns. It has redefined our perception of social activism: the “community do-gooder” in your office is the person who approaches you with the most fundraising forms as they walk/climb/bike/jump for such-and-such a cause. So prevalent is the recipe of cause-marketing that it has become synonymous with the very notion of “giving back” to the community.

While walking through the Smoki Museum in Prescott, I began to realize that the history of the Smoki might have some lessons to teach me. Granted, their story is a unique case at a specific place and time in history. However, the parallels between the Smoki legacy and what we presently practice as Cause-Related Marketing are striking, if not sobering.

Juxtaposition of ethnic/cultural identity

Whether it’s raising awareness about children, the homeless, or refugees, modern day CRM campaigns, like the Smoki, reside in the dominant culture (an ethnic or economic strata wherein lies the power and influence) and speak for the “subservient” culture. In the case of the Smoki People, the dominate culture assumed that its activities would be appreciated by the poor unfortunates it was striving to protect, yet could not understand why their efforts were met with such criticism and loathing. Like the Smoki, CRM assumes that it knows best how to speak for another cultural strata—and the result is a morally self-referential echo chamber: “We’re just trying to help — of course we are doing the right thing!”

Commercial capitalization

Ultimately, both the Smoki and CRM were/are income generators. The Smoki saved Prescott’s annual rodeo, and CRM is a branding opportunity that enables for-profit corporations to align their public image with causes that resonate with public concern. Corporations do the math, they know that social causes are emotionally charged goldmines: if a company can associate its brand with your emotive attachments, there are positive consequences to be reaped at when it comes to the bottom line. This is not an ethical issue (businesses have every right to sculpt their public image) until it becomes overtly denied by everyone involved that, ultimately, campaigns for social good are driven and financed for corporate profit. Commercial capitalization on social issues only becomes a moral issue if it becomes a suppressed lie. Large-scale CRM exists precisely because corporations have a vested interest in appearing to the general public as a entities with high CSR—corporate social responsibility.

Activity is abstracted from the issue

Running has no inherent relationship with breast cancer. Riding a bicycle to work has nothing to do with the plight of being a refugee. Building an art installation out of cardboard boxes does not alleviate poverty. Purple, as a colour, has no inherent relationship with abuse. In most CRM campaigns, the social issue being addressed has virtually nothing to do with the activity being presented. (At best, it seems, the public activity merely becomes a caricature of the fundamental issue.)

The abstracted activity (walking/running/biking/branding) is conjoined to the root issue by a conceptual ideal known as ‘raising awareness’. What’s wrong with raising awareness? Nothing, of course. The problem is that breast cancer, ethnic displacement, and homelessness are not solved by awareness alone. Rather, these systemically complex challenges are generally moved forward through rigorous and strategic lobbying — usually backed with extensive quantifiable research — by devoted policy-makers.

Am I suggesting that raising awareness is pointless? Of course not. But what truly drives awareness? Are you driven to actively respond to an issue because you saw a compassionate soul climb a bunch of stairs? While awareness may not be pointless, it is certainly incapable of enacting any change on its own: poverty will never become history just because everyone alive wore white bracelets.

The dilemma raised by this separation of activity from cause will probably be demonstrated by the emails I receive because of this post. People will assume that since I don’t support running, I must not care about breast cancer; or that because I’m skeptical of the beneficial results of World Homeless Day that I must not support affordable housing. The fact is, I am concerned about these issues. Furthermore, I’m so concerned about these issues that I’m worried our awareness campaigns for them are, potentially, distracting us from viably leveraging our resources to actually respond in a practical way. However, once people make an emotional attachment with the activity of a campaign, the critical function of actually debating and formulating a solution or response to the cause becomes absorbed in a personal identification with the abstraction. Herein lies the danger of separating the critical response to an issue (what do we actually do about cancer?) from the activity of a campaign (running for 5km).

I’m a Smoki

Leaving the Smoki museum, I realized just how much I myself am a Smoki. I have signed up for causes and raised money because, well, it makes me feel good to get a t-shirt that advertises what a good person I am. Like the Smoki, I’ve revelled in the warm security that comes with being in the moral and social elite. Cause-related marketing has given us a new social currency, and I’ve proudly sported it on my corporately-branded, do-gooder swag. In the end, I have probably invested more joules of energy into campaigns that do more to raise awareness of my own moral prestige than to actually do anything for the people that I’m supposedly trying to help. The person most served when I click Like for an online cause is me.

And as for “those people,” the recipients of my altruistic endeavours, well, the more I have gotten to know them, the less concerned I am about “raising awareness” for them. My friend who needs a place to live doesn’t need me to build a cardboard box for him any more than my grandfather, rest in peace, needed me to run 5 kilometres for cancer research. What my friend needs and what my grandfather needed was, simply, me. When they tell me to build a cardboard box or go for a run, I’ll do it, happily, but until then, I’m done assuming that my recreational activities somehow correspond to their actual situations.

What if, instead of trying to mimic the Hopi in a self-righteous attempt to ‘save’ them, the leaders of Prescott had sat down with the Hopi and, you know, just listened for a while…

The only “awareness” that needs “raising” is my understanding of their point of view.


Several months ago, one of my wife’s coworkers was tragically killed in an incident of domestic violence. The event sent shock waves through the community. What had been hidden behind closed doors was dragged into the light, but too late to save a precious life. Last week I stood in a local park as a tree, decorated with purple lights, was ceremoniously lit to raise awareness of violence against women. All the trappings of CRM were present: corporate sponsors, colour-coded clothing, politician endorsement, and media cameras. However, as I stood there with my wife, mourning silently together, I did not represent a marketing campaign, or a logo, or a website… I represented myself, as a member of a community, trying to come to terms with a terrible problem that plagues our tribe.

How we go about organizing ourselves, listening to one another, and seeking to better our lives together is ultimately a messy story. Community does not come with a codified handbook. How we deal with social issues is an on-going process of experiment, trial, and error. I did not wrote this post because I think cause-related marketing is morally bankrupt, and nor am I even advocating that it should be discontinued. Rather, I simply hope that we think about it critically: lest we rest on our laurels and simply go home happy, thinking that changing our wardrobe color to purple has, in fact, actually helped women presently trapped in abusive conditions.

Cause-related marketing deserves critical evaluation because the issues — the causes themselves — are of utmost importance. They demand nothing less than our most focused attention. The more we care about the cause, the more willing we should be to critique the campaign. Campaigns must be subservient to causes, not the other way around. If we prioritize our defense of a campaign above our resolve to dispassionately understand and concretely address the roots of the cause, we are only taking distracted steps backwards.


Prior to publishing this post, I sent a draft to my friend Abram Oudshoorn, who organized the recent World Homeless Day event in my city. Seeking to explore this issue from as many angles possible, I asked him if he would write a post to address the merits of cause-related marketing. He agreed, and we have published our posts simultaneously. Please read his synchro-post now: From Every Angle.

Share · Tweet